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द्रुतगामिनी Railroad

Background:
I went to Manchester yesterday - spend about 6 hours in train. It was the best setting to brainstorm alone ... and during the travel popped an idea, which i keyed into my laptop there and then. I have a desire to expand this idea and would love readers to provide inputs - especially if you think you have functional knowlegde and experience in the field of Railways.

The railway network in India is organised on the 'tree topology' meant primarily for long distance passenger travel and goods haulage. This is quite opposite to that in Europe where rail networks are organized in 'Hub-and-Spoke' topology and trains are means of fast, comfortable and no-frills (no check-in, etc) transport for domestic & small distances while air-travel is more common for international & long distances.

One of the reasons for this might be the political landscape of Western Europe with each country having a hub - usually capital city - connecting other smaller towns & villages. The international train connections (ex. between London & Paris) are few and mostly connect the hubs to each other.

Whatever the reasons, the Hub-and-Spoke system has its advantages. Since the distances of smaller towns from the hubs are comparatively less, travel is usually quick within a given web. Also, since the only way to travel outside one's web is via the hub - the traffic between the hubs is voluminous enough to invest on high-capacity and high-speed connectivity between them. Thus the average speed of the whole network is much higher.

However, the tree topology also has its benefits - firstly it leads to a balanced usage of the railroad (which in turn catalyses balanced economic growth of the region). By not dividing the whole region into small webs it provides better integration. Many more towns fall along the long distance line. The same network can be used for long as well as short distance travels in other words long distance trains along the network can carry local traffic also on their way. All these leads to reduction in running costs and thus travel is more affordable.

The fact that India already has an integrated tree topology based rail network for long distance and (comparatively) low cost travel, when combined with recent rise of low cost air carriers (which is increasing use of air travel for long distances), it is time to build a new overlapping hub-and-spoke rail network in India. Presented below are some ideas on this proposed model christened as Drutgamini (meaning Fast Travelling) Railroad Corporation.

Objectives and Operation

The primary objective of this project will be to provide very high speed travel option especially for hauling goods along long distances and passenger travel for small distances. Clearly, high speeds require a new generation of railroad and trains. The new rail lines can be laid in a hub-and-spoke manner by connecting the existing socio-economic hubs in different parts of the country by very high speed rail links and also creating a dense mesh of lines from the hub towards smaller centres of economic activity.

The द्रुतगामिनी Railroad Corporation could be formed as an independent for-profit corporation owned jointly by the Indian Railways (Govt of India) and other private (and/or foreign) players who can bring in necessary technical know how and finances. The corporation could lease the land owned by the Indian Railway (courtesy Right of Way) wherever possible for laying its high speed rail line and acquire land at market rates at other places where necessary.

The corporation would only be responsible for laying and maintaining the rail network while the trains would be run by multiple private players. This would also ensure appropriate competition resultant high service levels and continued influx of latest technology.

Beneficiaries

Retail and semi-processed food are sunrise sectors in India and will benefit immensely due to availability of high speed goods haulage over long distances. Indian metros like Mumbai, Dehi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata and other rising metros like Hyderabad, Pune, Nasik, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Indore could serve as ideal hubs - being already in a state of economic whirl and increasing consumption levels. The spoke-web would ensure that economic prosperity spreads fast enough to surrounding areas by providing easy and speedy accessibility to the hubs.

Such a network will also make setting up offices in smaller towns commercially and economically feasible, thus reducing the population load on metros on one hand and heralding infrastructural and commercial development of smaller towns on the other.

On the whole it would provide India with a fast, reliable and world-class network of railways, on top of the existing low-cost, affordable and backbone network that is currently functional. This will go a long way in establishing India at par with the developed world.

Other Qualitative improvements

Whether or not a new fast Rail Service is thought viable, there are some qualitative improvements that must be made to the existing Rail network. These are essential changes which won't cost too much but will go a long way in bringing the Indian Railways to a minimum respectable service level. These changes are:

1. Fencing all along the track
One thing that struck me while travelling in the UK is that the railway line has permanent fences (not simple wire fences) all along. This serves two purposes - one keeps animals from straying along the track and two makes the track sidelines neat.
This would especially useful in India where encroachment of Railway's Land is common in rural and urban areas alike. Urban squatting along railway tracks is probably the most unhealthy, undignified and entirely avoidable practice in India. Hopefully this can be arrested (if at all partially) by fencing the tracks. Fencing is also necessary if the speed of the trains on the tracks is to be increased.

2. High Quality & High Variety catering
India is fast becoming a consumerist society and food and catering industry is flourishing across the nation from the largest metros to the smallest towns. Why then shouldn't the Railways lag behind here? I am sure a Pantry Car on every train (however short its journey might be) will always turn out to be profitable. I can't see a reason why we cannot have a full snack bar running at least 12-16 hours a day serving Idli, Dosa, Maggi, Chowmein, and sandwitches along with regular meals on every train that runs on the rails!

3. High quality rail and smooth travel
I wouldn't say that the quality of rails in UK is better than that in India - except for the fact that the trains run at faster speeds there is no evidence of that. The trains are noisier and the rails look older - however, better quality rails in India won't hurt and might pave way for faster commuting and smoother travel.

In addition, smoother travel needs better coaches, better shock absorbers and smoother performing engines. While automatic closing doors might be disastrous for the tropical climate of India, but better looking carriages (coloured, fibre exteriors) would be great to boost the appearance of Indian railway, especially local transport/ metro services.

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